WWII: Food Rationing

The Psydro team will be observing the 2-minute silence to honour those who gave their lives to save our great nation – we will remember them.

Britain imported around 55 million tons of food every year before World War II began. This equated to two-thirds of the nation’s annual food requirement. After war was declared in September 1939, German submarines began attacking the British supply ships, leaving the government with the challenge of making sure everyone had enough to eat.

It was obvious Britain had to cut down on the amount of food it shipped in from overseas, so the government introduced a system known as rationing. It made sure that everyone got an equal share of food every week.

Allaying fears that the scarcity of food didn’t lead to higher prices, thus leaving poorer people unable to afford to eat, rationing also made sure people with more money didn’t start hoarding food, leaving nothing on the shelves for others.


© Public Domain


Launch of rationing

Food rationing began on 8th January 1940, when purchases of bacon, sugar and butter were limited. By 11th March the same year, all meat was being rationed, followed by tea and margarine in July 1940.

More foods were rationed throughout 1941, starting with jam in March, cheese in May and eggs in June. In January 1942, rice and dried fruit became rationed foods, followed by tinned tomatoes and peas. On 26th July 1942, sweets and chocolate were added to the list, followed by biscuits in August 1942 and sausages in 1943.

It wasn’t only food that was rationed. Other important items that had limited supplies included petrol, which was rationed from the start of the war in 1939. Clothing rationing began on 1st June 1941. Coal was first rationed in July that year.

As increasing numbers of miners joined the armed forces, there weren’t enough of them left to produce the coal needed to power Britain. In February 1942, soap was rationed, because the oils and fats used to produce it were saved for food instead. By 17th March 1942, gas and electricity were rationed as well.


Ration books

To counter the often serious shortages, the Ministry of Food introduced a system of ration books. To buy the rationed items, each person was required to register at chosen shops. They were provided with one ration book per person, containing a number of coupons.

Each shopkeeper was provided with just enough food for their registered customers. Each shopper had to present their ration book at the counter, so the used coupons could be cancelled once the rationed items had been purchased.


Shopping habits

Whereas shoppers could buy pretty much what they wanted before the war, they were very limited after 1939. One adult’s typical weekly food ration included 4oz of bacon and ham and other meat to the value of one shilling and tuppence – the equivalent of two chops.

They were allowed 2oz of butter, 2oz of cheese, 4oz of margarine, 4oz of cooking fat, three pints of milk, 8oz of sugar, 2oz of tea, one fresh egg and a small allowance of dried powdered egg. A shopper could purchase 1lb of jam or other preserves every two months and 12oz of sweets every four weeks.

Although this did not seem much, households learned to adapt to the limited amount of food they could buy. New recipes were created that were cheap and nutritious, based on the rationing of food. People were also encouraged to grow their own vegetables, including staples such as potatoes and carrots, on allotments or in their own garden, as part of the Dig for Victory campaign.


Wartime recipes

The Ministry of Food helped households to make the most of their rations and ensured they didn’t waste food. It provided ideas to make meals more interesting and ran many campaigns on the radio, promoting the “waste not, want not” ethos.

It also produced leaflets to educate the public on healthy eating and detailed recipes based on the rationed food, in pamphlets such as The ABC of Cookery. Recipes took the home cooks back to basics in the absence of many of the foods that we take for granted today.

Recipes such as spam hash made the most of a small amount of meat and whatever vegetables people could get their hands on. Large amounts of potatoes were used to pad out the meals and fill people up, with the limited amount of meat bolstered by the veg. Another simple meal was bread and dripping, the fat left over after meat, such bacon, is cooked.

People may cringe today at the thought of allowing the fat to solidify and spreading it on bread for a meaty taste, but the wartime diet was almost fat-free, and dripping became a useful addition to the diet.

Home cooks became adept at making cakes without using eggs, such as the egg-free sponge cake, which even utilised leftover tea to add moisture! Egg-free cakes were useful for special occasions, such as birthdays and weddings. Parents would often try to save up their rations to give their kids a special treat once in a while.


End of rationing

After World War II ended in 1945, it didn’t mean the end of rationing, as it took years for Britain to recover from the austerity of the war. The end of rationing did not begin until 1948 and it was staggered so that certain foods became available before others.

Clothing rationing ended on 15th March 1949, but it was to be more than a year before the majority of foods were no longer rationed. Dried and canned fruit, chocolate biscuits, mincemeat, jelly, treacle and syrup became widely available in May 1950, which was great for people with a sweet tooth!

In September 1950, soap rationing ended. The staple of the British diet, tea, was rationed up until 3rd October 1952. Sweets and sugar rationing ended in February 1953. More than one year later, on 4th July 1954, food rationing officially finished – nine years after the end of World War II.


Health effects

The effects of rationing on people’s health were tested by researchers from Cambridge University in December 1939 to ascertain whether the government’s proposals could work without people falling ill. Researchers Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson tested whether people in the UK could survive with only domestic food items if the German U-boats put an end to imports.

Scientists undertook intensive outdoor exercise, while eating a limited diet, to simulate the strenuous manual wartime work that many Brits performed. They found their health remained good, although it took them much longer to consume their meals, due to the vastly increased amounts of potatoes and bread that they ate to pad out their calorie intake.

A surprise find of their study was that people’s health in general actually improved, infant mortality declined, and life expectancy rose, as everyone could access a balanced diet containing staple foods with plenty of vitamins.

Special services will be taking place at cenotaphs and churches all over the world on Remembrance Sunday, 10th November, to commemorate our war heroes. Lest we forget.

Recent Posts

Prince: Diamonds and Pearls

The legendary American singer, Prince, was one of the most…

Eggstra Special Easter Eggs

Eggs have enjoyed an association with Easter for hundreds of…

Battle of the Sizes!

The problem of how clothing sizes differ from shop to…